“Sleepy Hollow”: Unearthing the Legend

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A headless horseman roams the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in October 2019. –Photo by Tracy Hoffman

By Caroline Loop

January 29, 2020

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” now hailed as an early American folklore classic, has an interesting origin story. Drawing influences from Norse mythology, the Dutch tales of his youth, and the writings of fellow writer Francis Scott Key, Irving created a haunting tale which continues to capture the imagination of readers today.

While Irving’s tale is Americans’ most well-known headless horseman story, many other cultures, including Scandinavians and Celtics, have their own versions as well.  In fact, some scholars speculate that headless horseman stories written by the Brothers Grimm, as well as the Irish legend of the Dullahan, may very well have inspired Irving to write his story.

According to legend, the Dullahan is a headless horseman who calls out the name of someone about to die, often someone who he is chasing. He uses a human spine as a horsewhip, and the head he carries has the consistency of molded cheese. The Brothers Grimm wrote two similar headless horseman tales based on this monster, including a tale of an unlucky woman who sees the monster and the tale of a headless horseman whose hunting horn warns hunters of impending doom.

All of these influences considered, the most likely direct inspiration for Irving was probably Sir Walter Scott’s “The Chase.” After meeting Scott in 1817, Irving came to respect him as a lifelong friend and mentor, looking to Scott’s writing for influence. “The Chase” was translated by Scott from “The Wild Huntsman,” a German poem written by Gottfried Burger about an evil hunter who is hunted by the devil forever for his crimes. Elements of this particular German poem, influenced directly by Norse mythology, can be seen in the headless horseman’s chase of the unfortunate Ichabod Crane.

Combined with Scott’s influence and his own historical knowledge, Irving’s exposure to Dutch folklore adds an authentic, distinctly American element to a rewriting of a myth present in many Northern European cultures. In 1798, Irving moved to a rural area to escape a yellow fever outbreak in New York City. While in rural New York, Irving listened to Dutch American ghost stories and gained a regional knowledge of places like the Old Dutch Church and Major Andre’s Tree. Irving also visited a graveyard, where he saw actual Dutch family names such as van Tassel, names which he would eventually use in his stories.

In addition to Dutch influence, Irving further drew from specific historical happenings  which took place in the New York region. In particular, his headless horseman is actually based off of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball in the Battle of the White Plains in October of 1776. It is this historical connection, meshed neatly with mythology, folklore, and other literary connections, which makes Irving’s story such a classic. Like the early United States, Irving’s tale reflected Americans’ need to forge a unique identity as an independent nation. According to historian Bradley, Irving’s story “cleverly weaves together factual locations.and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy…It’s a melting pot of a story, and thus totally American.”


Caroline Loop is a special guest blogger this week. In Fall 2019, Caroline wrote this blog specifically for the Washington Irving Society page. She submitted the blog as an optional assignment for Dr. Tracy Hoffman’s 3380 American Literature class at Baylor University. This was not a formal paper assignment, but a casual blog response to the reading. Please feel free to leave comments about Caroline’s response here on the website.

Published in: on January 29, 2020 at 4:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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